Friday, 12 September 2008

Q&A

I actually bought my running shoes today after running on a treadmill and having my feet videoed until we found a shoe that worked for me. I had to run in a neutral shoe, then in each of three others and then take each of them for a spin around the car park. I was exhausted by the time I bought them and wondering whether this running lark was really for me.


I received a series of questions passed on to me from Adriana Sardinha at Rocco from a Brazilian newspaper called Folha de Sao Paulo. Here they are with the answers I gave:

1) I read that the idea for Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror came from hide and seek, and the mixture of anxiety of getting caught and the sound of your own breath as you hid. That was a very impressive and yet simple and relatable way to put it to your readers, from every age group. But why did you choose to write for children specifically? Or did they choose you?

The idea for one of the stories in that collection – A Ghost Story – came in part from games of hide and seek, but I definitely think the collection for children came from knowing that children like to be scared (as long as they know it is not for real). I have had some books published for children already and some of them had a supernatural element to them. I was asked to come up with some scary stories for young children and could not think of any I wanted to write. I had lots of ideas for scary stories for adults, and simply changed the main character to a child. Then I wrote some more and found that they came quite easily to me. I think I will probably write for adults as well one day.

2) Uncle Montague Tales of Terror is supposed to be reading material for young readers, but some tales and themes are really scary, even for an older audience. Did you ever think about writing for that age group?

I did not think about whether something was too scary. I was imagining that the bulk of the readers would be 12 and above and so I think by that age they are already having access to scary stuff – video games, movies etc. But I wanted to do something I did not think was being done quite as much. I wanted to do chilling stories – stories that were not so much about blood and violence as about shadows and things half seen.

3) When did you first think about being a writer?

When I was about 8 I remember telling my teacher that I wanted to be a writer. I entered a short story competition and won a medal. I think I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was distracted from doing that for many years by my career as a cartoonist and illustrator. I have always written though, long before I was published.

4) How do you get the ideas for characters and situations for your books
?

From everything I have ever read, movies I have seen, TV, stories friends have told me, things that have happened to me, dreams, paintings – just about anything and everything I have ever seen or heard or done. Writing is all about bringing all these things that are floating round in your head into some kind of coherent form. Sometimes idea just flash into my head. Sometimes it takes years of chewing over something that does not quite work – then one day – bang – it all just fits into place.

5) What inspires you
?

All the above. Good writing of any kind. Other children’s authors, but mainly adult authors. Movies, old and new. My son is 11, so he inspires me as he is the kind of child I often write for. Sometimes bad writing inspires me. I think – ‘I could do better than that!’

6) I read in your blog about your “relationship” with Stephen King. In your post you said that, now that you are a writer, being popular would be a good thing. Do you consider yourself popular? Do you believe that popularity like that of King or J K Rowling would be a good or bad thing for your work as a writer?

I would be very happy to sell more books. That would not be a problem for me. But you must never think that being popular is the same as being good. People will buy or watch or read or listen to, the strangest things. But I have never believed that just because someone is popular their work must therefore not be any good. Dickens was a popular writer. It is possible to be a very good writer and to be popular. But likewise it is possible to be an excellent writer and not sell at all. All writers can do is write the best books they can.

7) Who are your favorite writers and why?

There are just too many to mention really. There are so many fantastic writers writing for children at the moment. I very much enjoyed Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books. I’m reading Ray Bradbury short stories – or rather re-reading them. Bradbury is great. I’m also reading Wilkie Collins The Woman in White. I am a big fan of Cormac McCarthy. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was great. I just re-read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I like all kinds of stuff. I suppose a common theme is that I like to see the writer at work. A lot of readers don’t want that – they want the story to be the thing. I like people like McCarthy, Calvino, Kafka, Bradbury – writers who really have a particular voice. Dickens too of course. And Raymond Chandler – he’s great. Edward Gorey too of course.

8) I also read in your website that you a lot of movies and books inspired you in creating your stories. What are some of your favorite books and movies? Why?

That’s hard. David Copperfield is a favourite that I re-read recently. The David Lean movie of that book is also great. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses was a book I really loved. Treasure Island and Kidnapped are fantastic. R L Stevenson is a big hero. Kafka’s The Trial. Crime and Punishment. Camus The Outsider. I loved to Kill a Mocking Bird when I read it as a teenager. And The Catcher in the Rye. The ghost stories of M R James. The short stories of Poe. Raymond Carver. This could go on and on.

Movies? Again – there are so many. I love Kurosawa – Roshomon and The Seven Samurai particularly. Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull – and Mean Streets. The Maltese Falcon. Pulp Fiction. Woody Allen’s great films – Annie Hall for instance. Fritz Lang. John Ford westerns. But movies that are particularly inspiring for this book. The Innocents – a version of Henry James The Turn of the Screw was in my mind a lot. The Poe adaptations of Roger Corman. The RKO and Universal horror movies – Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein etc. Nick Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The Tenant and Repulsion. Lots of movies really. Cocteau – The Blood of the Poet and Beauty and the Beast. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands.

As with books – I like films that have a style about them. Kurosawa is a genius. David Lean films are beautifully shot – his David Copperfield is fantastic. The early horror films were an inspiration for some of the stories – more in the feel of them than anything. I imagined Uncle Montague to be someone like Boris Karloff or Vincent Price. I think I saw the scenes with Edgar and Uncle Montague as being shot like one of those great old American horror movies.

I think I also see the scenes in my books in my head like films and then try to write in such a way that it conveys what I see – not just what I see, but the mood of what I’m seeing.

9) Do you think that being an illustrator has helped your work as a writer? How so?

I’m not sure it has helped particularly, but it has probably shaped the way I write. I tend to keep ideas books like I do with my drawings, and then work them up and up until there is a clear idea and then work away in sections, building the whole thing up until I’m satisfied that it is finished.

10) When you started writing, did you ever dreamed of publishing something in Portuguese? How has this experience been for you?

No I never dreamed of being published in Portuguese, but I am very happy that I am. I’m hoping to find it a really good experience but I won’t really have a feel for it until I get to Brazil. It has not really affected me much yet.

11) What do you hope your readers will get from the experience of reading your books?

I hope first and foremost that they will enjoy the book. After that, I hope that some of the images might stay with them. I hope they might like it enough to recommend me to a friend and to buy another of my books. I hope that one or two readers might – as I did when I read Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick – think, hey – maybe I might be able to do this as well.

12) What are your next projects?

I have just delivered the third in the Tales of Terror series – Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth – and that will come out in the UK in October 2009. I am busy writing a creepy novel for Bloomsbury called Ghosts (although that title will change when it is published I think)

13) Any tips for aspiring writers? For readers?

Well – for writers, they should read as much as possible. And learn to read critically. Try to think why you liked a book so much. What was the writer doing that another writer was not? Then try and write well as much as you can. Even if you are writing an email, try to write it well – make the phrases pleasing to read. Write some short stories or reports or reviews of something you’ve seen or read. Make the projects small enough that you finish them and don’t get put off. Practice writing stories that go somewhere – that have a real ending and don’t just fade out. If you see a competition – enter it. Someone has to win – it might be you.

For readers, it is much the same. Just read and read and read. Don’t give up on books because you read a bad one and got bored. There are millions of books out there. There is something for everybody. And books are one of the few art forms that really can change your life. I know I am a different person for having read the books I’ve read.

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